by Neil Hickey
Mink-wrapped and black-tied music aficionados stood in long queues outside New York’s plush Basin Street East supper club recently, and jockeyed for position in the sweepstakes they hoped would land them at ringside tables. Inside, a 5’7″ blonde, in a shimmering white gown that followed her contours faithfully, hobbled to the spotlight and surrendered to a gentle, rhythmic, finger-snapping contagion. Her mouth was broad and mobile, drooping inelegantly at the corners as she voiced an age-old complaint:
…You let the other people make a fool of you,
Why don’t you do right, like some other men do?
Get out of here, and get me some money too.
Singer Peggy Lee was at work earning the $12,500 a week Basin Street felt she was worth. In the crowded supper club’s smoky silence, her voice grew successively sensual, blatant, desolate, flinty, intimate, and languorous, as she caressed the lyrics of a whole spectrum of blues and jazz songs.
The patrons whistled and stomped in obvious satisfaction. Seventeen years had passed since a nervous young band-singer had recorded “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, and been thrust to national attention. What the Basin Street East customers were applauding was a seasoned champagne, about whom the critics had written “the Marilyn Monroe of the chanteuses,” “magnetic and exciting,” “she left the throng limply calling for more.”
Strangely enough, Peggy Lee’s undoubted singing talents are often submerged in a long list of other highly developed skills: she’s a composer (film scores for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, and George Pal’s The Time Machine); lyricist (“It’s a Good Day,” “Mañana,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You”); arranger (“Fever”); dramatic actress (Academy Award nominee for her 1955 role in Pete Kelly’s Blues); sculptress (“Mostly hands. I know their bone structure well from wringing my own”); oil painter (“I subscribe ardently to art seminars; I’ve done a great many oil paintings and thrown a great many away”); business woman (heads two music publishing firms and a holding company that coordinates her several enterprises); and poet (“Greeting card verses mostly; you’d be surprised at the royalties those little ditties make”).
But most of all, Peggy Lee is a singer, and according to jazz critic Nat Hentoff “one of the rare ones. She seldom resorts to gimmicks and formulas. Her method is a matter of timing and intelligence. She has what jazz singers must have: an instantly identifiable style that grows out of her personality.”
This style, says Leonard Feather, author of The Encyclopedia of Jazz and long-time commentator on music and musicians, “is a combination of vocal quality, emotional impact, and complete perfectionism.”
Peggy started out as Norma Egstrom in the Great Plains farm town of Jamestown, North Dakota (population 8,000), the daughter of a railroad station agent. Norma took her savings of $18, her father’s railroad pass, and a battered suitcase to Hollywood for an assault on the movie business, but ended up back in Jamestown disappointed and unhappy. Station WDAY in Fargo gave her a singing job and changed her name; she worked at various hotels and radio stations in the Midwest before being spotted by Benny Goodman, who employed her as a band singer for two years.
A former member of the Goodman troupe recalls: “Peggy was shy and cautious, kept to herself, and never engaged in any personal ballyhoo. But that was the way most traveling bandsmen who came along in the thirties and forties behaved – Glen Miller, Goodman, the Dorseys – they were all small-town boys who made it on their talent alone. That was the way with Peggy. In those days, band singers got paid around $60 to $75 a week, and traveled through snowstorms in ramshackle buses to play one-night stands in dance halls and gymnasiums. Those were the great days of American popular music. And the singers who lived through them – like Peggy, Helen Forrest, Martha Tilton – deserve to be big stars today.”
Jane Leslie, former bandsinger and close friend of Peggy’s, recalls: “When Peggy came to New York, she and I lived a real My Sister Eileen existence in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village; neither of us ever had much money. We shared each other’s clothes; it gave our boyfriends the impression we had large wardrobes. Then gradually, her records began to catch on, and she was on her way.”
During this time, Peggy married guitarist-composer Dave Barbour, and gave birth to a daughter, Nicki. She and Barbour were divorced in 1950, and Peggy subsequently married and divorced actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin.
Her 1955 role in Pete Kelly’s Blues – that of a frustrated, alcoholic blues singer – won her an Academy Award nomination, and announced to the show world that here was a deeply intuitive and natural dramatic talent. “I modeled that part on a number of girls I had known,” Peggy says. “Sad girls, singers who had survived unhappy love affairs and went on doing their jobs the best they could. I love to act. I intend to do much more in the future.”
At her rambling, mountain view home in Coldwater Canyon, California, Peggy works at her many projects in a sound-proofed studio stocked with tape units, microphones, grand piano, massive record collection, typewriter, and plenty of copy paper. And she reads philosophy.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson has a great deal to say to our generation,” she says. “I wouldn’t still be working today if it weren’t for the strength I’ve derived from some of his essays. He said: ‘God will not have his work done by cowards.’ To me, that means: ‘Don’t let your personal problems get in the way of your life’s work.’ I’ve had to remember that rule several times during my career.”
Today she’s at the peak of that career. And she has talent enough to stay there for good.